Sat | Jun 3, 2023

'Always wanted to return' says Haiti-born US Army sergeant

Published:Tuesday | January 19, 2010 | 12:00 AM

A small congregation prays at a small, damaged church in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Sunday.

Haiti (AP):

Junior Florestal left Haiti when he was 13 for a better life in the United States. He long promised to return, but it took an earthquake to bring him back.

"I'd always wanted to come," the 33-year-old United States Army staff sergeant said Sunday. "But I didn't want to come in this way."

Florestal is one of at least three Haitian-American paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division helping to get sorely needed food, water and supplies to survivors of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that shattered this capital city last Tuesday. His unit learned it would leave the following day, giving Florestal hope he could both bring aid and track down dozens of relatives living in Port-au-Prince and in villages surrounding the capital.

"I was ready to go that day," he said. "When I was watching it on TV in the States, I couldn't wait to get back here and help out."

Florestal joined the Army in 1996 and has served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. Trained to be a cook, he's fluent in Creole. Since arriving Saturday, he has been translating for officers who coordinate relief efforts from the division's base on a hillside golf course.

"It helps to have someone with a similar background," said Captain John Hartsock, who has been overseeing food distribution with the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based division.

Searching for family

Quake survivors implore the soldiers in halting English for more food and water and for medical help. Florestal responds in Creole and surprised Haitians waiting in lines slap him on the back and shake his hand.

"They feel good that there are Haitians in the US Army," he said.

When Florestal hasn't been working as an interpreter, he's been asking quake victims if they have any information about his family. On Saturday, he walked up and down a makeshift barricade, questioning those waiting in line for food.